Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part V

Problems completing projects and relating to others: the perfectionist’s challenge

Last week, we talked about perfectionism as an internal defence mechanism and an active response to the experience of being shamed. By attempting to be perfect, we try to make ourselves beyond reproach, minimising the occasion for comments or behaviours that would re-engage a deep-seated doubt we may have about our own personal value and worth. Among the costs of allowing our perfectionist tendencies to hold forth are making sacrifices – intended or not – and compromised decision-making and behaviours. Perfectionism can also make it harder for us to complete projects, and may make it harder for others to relate to us. We examine the impact of these latter two costs of perfection, and consider how they can influence career and leadership.

Perfectionistic tendencies can entirely thwart the career progression of the most capable and intelligent of individuals. Always looking for the final increment of ‘betterness’, and ascribing great importance to every single last detail, the perfectionistic individual can find it very difficult to complete tasks, and move on to the next part of a project. Each part has to be mastered and done well. In these cases, the first parts of a project are usually flawless and outstanding in their execution, while the latter parts end up rushed or undone. This commonly leaves the perfectionist to wonder why this always happens, and to question what amazing situation might have been had they got everything right!

In the hands of a perfectionist, entire swathes of a prefigured or agreed strategy may go without being implemented. Colleagues and supervisors can be left in the lurch when the agreed deliverables don’t arrive on time or reach them in a state of incompleteness. As a defence for the shame this can bring, the perfectionist may slip into denial, brushing over how important the undone elements really were, and/or their inner critic can become overly active, beating them up for their failure, telling them how incompetent or worthless they really are, and ultimately reinforcing the drive for perfection that created the ‘failure to complete’ in the first place.

Placing a great onus on those around them, perfectionists may encourage everyone to expend all of their energy – in Herculean proportions – on making sure that, figuratively speaking, not one hair is out of place. Perfection at all costs. Here, they may quite inadvertently make those who cannot ‘keep up’ or ‘get it right’ feel that they are out of place, the weakest link, or ashamed that they have ‘failed to show up’. It takes relatively little imagination to see how this might inform someone’s brand of leadership or the organisational culture they create around them.

Driving to make ourselves perfect engages us in a never-ending tussle to be the best, reach the top, and achieve the unachievable. Like Sisyphus, we relentlessly toil to push the boulder up a hill, exhausting ourselves, and siphoning off energy from other parts of our life that we may later regret were left undeveloped. Here, we may miss out on important events with friends and family, rarely show up at work socials and miss the opportunity to discover allies we didn’t know existed, or completely disregard the value that a healthy relationship or family can give us and our ability to thrive at work and outside of it.

Like Tantalus, as perfectionists, we may perpetually reach towards our most important and cherished reward and outcomes, only to have them just beyond us. In the world of the perfectionist, very little is ever good enough. Unbridled, perfectionists can make the worst of company, always finding fault or noting how things could, should, or would be better.

Such is the rarefied nature of perfection, that when humanity touches it, it takes on a god-like or sublime quality. It burns bright, returning the term ‘awesome’ to its original meaning: that which is so impressive that it excites and terrifies us in equal measure. It is therefore the very nature of its pursuit (dedicated, focused, unrelenting) and its achievement (god-like by nature and, for that, less human) that makes those who seek it harder to relate to. Where an individual pursues it, that which does not aid realisation of this idealised state is dismissed, undervalued, or excluded – both within ourselves and with respect to the people and world around us. A whole world disappears from our view, as we subconsciously strip options and tracks away that we do not think will help with Mission Perfection. We inadvertently replace kaleidoscopic with monochrome. With this, we can become more boring to others, and also reduce our capacity to make decisions informed by a fuller, more realistic picture.

Nevertheless, we may wholeheartedly embrace the singularity that pursuing perfect brings with it (the pun as it relates to AI is intended), and the relationship between the pursuit of perfection, AI, and changes to humanity are well worth exploration. Indeed they have often been tackled in popular culture, for example in the Disney film Tron: Legacy. It is worth noting here that there is also a link between perfectionism, the inner critic as experienced by women, and the ‘thinking function’ as it is known in the Jungian lexicon (the ’T’ in Myers Briggs; the ‘red’ outcome-focused, logic-oriented personality traits in the Lumina Spark psychometric test)). We may relish the uniqueness and brilliance of what we can achieve, the thin air further up the mountain, and even the lonesomeness that is part and parcel of our distinction from what is average. Nevertheless this same differentiating factor can alienate us from others. We may radiate – by what we ourselves are or have achieved – what is and is not of value to us, and perhaps more broadly what is and is not of value within our team or organisation. Indeed, we may make others excruciatingly aware of their own shortcomings, ironically shaming them by their comparison with us, such that they then move away from us, or certainly feel that there is an unbridgeable gap between us. Here, others may not feel smart enough around us, accomplished enough, rich enough, cultured enough, etc. , and may avoid us for this reason – just as we may behave this way with respect to others with whom we compare ourselves unfavourably.

Where this happens, there is the preclusion or undermining of our efforts to create buy-in for our initiatives, to develop a healthy team dynamic, or to create useful alliances. At an organisational level, too much ‘outstanding’ can become a distinct disadvantage, where there is insufficient camaraderie and gel within teams to buoy them through tougher periods or rally them towards important organisational goals. In the hiring and selection process, ‘too outstanding’ can become a reason not to extend someone an offer.

This is in no way an attempt to dissuade one from pursuing ever higher levels of excellence, or to take away from those with outstanding achievements. Indeed it is this very same determination, drive, vision, and ability that has the power to change organisations, communities, and entire fields of thinking and human endeavour. However, it pays to be aware of the downsides (for which we may choose to consciously compensate), and also to understand the extent to which our particular brand of perfectionism is driven by feelings of shame (which flags potential risks we need to be aware of, particularly with respect to other shame-related defence mechanisms).

When it comes to leadership, perfectionism can impact key ‘soft’ capacities. Among these are our ability to handle complexity, and our authenticity. With respect to the former, perfectionism can equip us poorly to factor in unexpected or seemingly irrelevant variables, and this by virtue of its filtering out mechanism and the nature of its drivenness towards the envisioned ideal. We may reject emergent solutions because they don’t fit our preconceptions for what they should look like or how they will come to arise. Not unsurprisingly, the pursuit of perfection can also often be charged with a certain linearity of thinking.

When it comes to authenticity, perfectionism can thwart the very intention of trying to become a ‘more authentic leader’. Here, we are less relatable by the distinction we foster, we are less grounded by our drive to reach greater heights, and we can deny or manipulate that within us, which is part of who we are, but not part of the-us-we-need-to-be to achieve our perfect selves or intended outcomes. This last point is perhaps the most important: How can we craft authenticity with integrity where we do not appreciate that which is truly within us for what it is, since it too must bow to the imperative of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’?

Examining this conundrum more esoterically, we might consider that weakness lends meaning to strength, darkness to light, blemish to brilliance, and fault to perfection. Herein lies the richness of meaning and experience which we often, and quite automatically, ascribe not only to complexity, but also to our notions of authenticity. Here, it transpires that imperfection not only informs an ability to see and manage the granular and the nuanced more honestly and accurately (and perhaps, as a consequence, to do this with respect to the world around us too), but that it also carries its own uniqueness and charm, which can make it easier for others to relate to us.

In sum, inherent to perfectionism is a certain single-mindedness and therefore separation not only from others, but also from the complexity and reality of the world around us. With respect to shame, it is a valuable exercise to discern how much your pursuit of perfection was forged by the imperative to be good enough, to have enough value, and ultimately to validate your existence and right as an individual. Where shame is at play, there will most certainly be some overcompensation that will make it unnecessarily difficult for others to relate to you, and, essentially, for them bond with you. This will influence alliances, trust-building, and team work in your career and leadership. Equally, your perfectionism will be attended by other defence mechanisms related to shame. It pays to keep an eye on these so that you can more actively choose and effect what you want for yourself in your career.